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Why The Guinness Pro 14 Is Great For Test Rugby . . . But Lacks Integrity As A Tournament

Who would have thought it? Leinster start their Guinness Pro 14 campaign by leaving out some of their best Irish players? Well, Robin Davey, for one, who argues that the league is compromised even if it does look after its Test players far better than its rival across the border.

The new rugby season is barely a week old yet already the Guinness Pro 14 is under attack – especially from the other side of Offa’s Dyke.

The debate was provoked after Leinster – on the very first day of the season – decided to field an almost completely reserve side against Cardiff Blues, including just two of their Champions Cup winning team.

Once again it exposed the fallacy of naming the Pro 14 the best league in world rugby.

The most diverse? Yes, we’ll give them that, for sure, because it takes in five countries from two hemispheres. But, the best? Hardly.

One issue is the lack of relegation. It has to be structured in that way since what team in Wales could win promotion when there are just four fully professional outfits?

Effectively, no relegation means a team can go in with any XV they care to choose. They could lose every match, safe in the knowledge there is no jeopardy.

The Irish, in particular are renowned for this – not for losing every match – but for mixing and matching their line-ups, instead of playing their strongest team.

Inevitably, it skews the league. One team may lose to a strong Munster side. Another team may narrowly beat them if the men in red are less than full strength.

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Leinster and Munster frequently leave out their best players for Pro 14 games and reserve them either for derby fixtures or Europe – or both.

Consequently, there is the ridiculous example of Leinster’s Johnny Sexton having started just nine Pro 14 matches in the past two years.

Leinster were, in fact, justified in fielding such a below strength side against the Blues because they still won, albeit by a single point.

That was quite an achievement in an away fixture without so many regulars, but is underlines how strong their squad really is.

It also says a lot about the relative strength of Welsh regions when the Irish can come here, resting star players, yet still triumph.

But though there was a healthy 9,000+ crowd at Cardiff Arms Park, such a fixture still deprives fans the opportunity of seeing some world stars – and at that rate crowds will never reach the numbers which are constantly achieved the other side of the Severn Bridge.

Take the English Gallagher Premiership opener, for example, when newly promoted Bristol – with a new-look team and a new home ground at rebuilt Ashton Gate – attracted a huge crowd for a domestic game of over 26,000 for their derby against Bath. And they won, so it will be more of the same next time.

Looking at the other English Premiership matches they were all played in front of big crowds and they were almost without exception played at a high intensity.

Kingsholm was a prime example for fans where they could watch full tilt Gloucester win their opener against full strength Northampton – the result and that supreme pass by Danny Cipriani sure to bring them back eager for more.

No reserve line-ups here, no leading players rested. Why? Because there is always the threat of relegation and the dreaded drop which no-one wants.

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Hence there’s always a real edge to their games.

That’s one side of the coin, but there is another.

We’re only one match in, but all those players in the Premiership will be expected to turn out week after week – injuries aside – though some, no doubt, still play despite carrying some kind of niggle.

It means by the time of the Six Nations or the later stages of European competition, they will pretty much be worn out.

That can’t be good for the national cause and it can’t be good for their team’s chances in Europe, either, which is one reason why the Irish sides, with less demands on their players, and Leinster, in particular, fare so well.

England were awful in the Six Nations last year, partly because of a crippling injury list which deprived coach Eddie Jones of a number of players and partly because leading ones were overplayed and therefore tired in a sport which is becoming more and more physical.

Wales, on the other hand, and Ireland more often than not, thrive on the international front partly because their respective unions decide which players can turn out and which are told to rest.

You can’t have it all ways. You can’t have the proverbial penny and the bun.

Either rest leading players – with the undermining of integrity for the competition – knowing they can still perform at the tail end of the season – or play them in virtually every game.

The second option will pack grounds out, but risks the players arriving at a critical stage of the campaign pretty much burnt out.

Two very different leagues and two very different agendas.


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